Ian Thomsen: Rash of injuries prompts rule change discussion - Sports Illustrated

Rash of injuries prompts rule change discussion

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The NBA has turned into a league of mysterious injuries. So far this season, Eric Gordon, Danny Granger, John Wall and Andrew Bynum haven't played a minute because of knee ailments that were aggravated or failed to be rehabbed over the summer.

Could more have been done to improve the players' health before training camp? One team executive believes the NBA should consider rules that would enable franchises to have more oversight on players' training methods during the offseason.

"You would love to see the team who pays the player have, if not complete control, at least consensual agreement over who the player works with,'' the team executive said. "Let the team have some oversight of that, so that the team can say, 'No, we don't want you dealing with this person.' Somehow we need to have it written into the contract so that if something happens and it's not under team supervision, then it's going to be an issue.''

In other words, if something were to go wrong for the player while he trained outside the team's supervision, then the team could have the right to penalize the player financially.

Players are already prohibited contractually from dangerous activities as well as from playing in specified summer leagues. But this would be an entirely new realm, and it would lead to acrimony. Players would accuse owners of trying to weaken guaranteed contracts. In some cases, players don't trust the medical advice they receive from teams. A leading NBA agent suggested that some franchises hire a team doctor as if filling a sponsorship position, with physician's practices paying to be the official doctor of a team. "That's why they don't hire the best doctors,'' he said.

Agents often hire trainers to work with the players they represent. In turn, the teams then routinely accuse agents of providing training or medical advice that is not necessarily in the best interest of the player. This is a complicated issue for the same reason that everyday, non-athletic patients in all walks of life are advised to seek out opinions from multiple doctors.

"When it comes to medicine,'' an NBA general manager said, "you can get anyone anywhere to tell you what you want to hear.''

The issues of Gordon, Granger, Wall and Bynum are all different from one another. The team executive who is proposing new rules doesn't claim to understand the individual circumstances of each case, and he isn't accusing the players of behaving wrongly. Instead, he is calling for the teams -- who are paying those five players a combined $49.6 million in guaranteed salary this season -- to have more control over the health of the players in whom they invest so greatly.

A couple of issues have changed over the last 20 years. The first, obviously, is that players are being guaranteed more money than ever. The other, which will be a surprise to some fans, is that players train harder than ever. The days of the typical NBA star planning to work himself into shape during preseason camp are long gone. Most players work on their bodies year-round, and the executive wonders if players are now guilty of over-training.

"We look at 19- and 20-year-old players coming into the draft with knees that look like they're 25 or 26 years old,'' the executive said. "There is a lot of tendinitis. I do believe that a great number of players work hard in the summer and put in time that is unnecessary. At training camp, they're almost likely to break down.''

Casey Smith is the Mavericks' head athletic trainer. Since 2005 he has been athletic trainer for the U.S. men at the Olympics and world championships, and he is chairman of the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association. (Dirk Nowitzki has yet to play for the Mavericks this year after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in October, but his knee injury was the wear-and-tear result of 14 NBA seasons.)

"The management of the individual teams sets the tone,'' Smith said. "We've had multiple [players] who use personal trainers over the offseason. In those instances, if we sign a [player], I immediately reach out to the guy they're working out with and start a dialogue about education, physical fitness, things like that -- including the agents. There's a sense of, Yeah, he's working with that person, but at the end of the day, he's an employee of the Mavericks.''

Smith said the dialogue is crucial because it's too easy for players to invest in bad advice.

"The problem is that for people who call themselves a 'personal trainer,' it can mean a thousand different things -- it can mean college degrees and advance certifications, or it can be someone who used to rebound for you at the gym,'' Smith said. "There is no legality on the term 'personal trainer.' It's like calling yourself a cook as opposed to becoming a chef.''

It is going to be a difficult issue to address with players because there is such a variety of subjective opinion. Smith wasn't certain what kind of language could be negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement.

"Maybe you could allow contracts to be structured so players get some bonuses if they're working out at the team facility in the offseason," Smith said. "Football does a good job of getting guys to work out at the [NFL] facilities in their offseason. I don't know if something like that would be part of the solution. I think communication with the teams is the most important thing, and management should be on top of that.''

Said the GM: "The players don't want to spend $35,000 a month on a personal trainer -- but if you don't give them somebody to work out with, then they'll go out and spend the $35,000. I do think this is a problem. But I don't think it's a huge epidemic.''

The rival team executive disagrees. "I believe it's coming," he said of a demand for new rules. "Too many things keep happening.''

The Headlines

? Warriors upset Heat in Miami. The last-second 97-95 win on a backdoor layup by rookie Draymond Green on Wednesday was the Warriors' fifth consecutive road victory. The Heat have lost three of their last five games with Dwyane Wade troubled by a stiff neck and LeBron James dealing with a sore shoulder. "This is a long season and we're not in a bad place right now,'' James said of the 14-6 Heat, who rank No. 2 in the Eastern Conference. "We're not mad about the situation we're in. We're good.'' He's right -- compared to the Lakers, Celtics and other contenders dealing with injured stars, the Heat's current issues are minor and should naturally work themselves out over the course of the season.

? Nets vs. Knicks, Game 2. Having lost the opening game of their newfound and long-anticipated rivalry at Brooklyn, the Knicks recovered from an early 17-point deficit to beat the Nets 100-97 on Tuesday. Jason Kidd hit the decisive three-pointer against his former team with 24 seconds left -- a controversial shot as Kidd kicked out Reggie Miller-style at defender Jerry Stackhouse -- after Carmelo Anthony had dominated with a season-high 45 points. "He's the MVP, guys,'' Knicks coach Mike Woodson said of Anthony -- prematurely. The MVP, until someone bypasses him with authority, is playing for Miami. But it's no exaggeration to anticipate that this thing in New York could turn out to be the best rivalry in basketball.

? Kevin Love holds firm. "I told the truth,'' Love told reporters of an interview he gave to Yahoo! Sports in which he promised to maintain a "very, very good memory'' of Minnesota's refusal to give him a full five-year extension. He said the team questioned whether his hand was broken while doing pushups in October, as he has maintained, and he wondered about the Timberwolves' long-term vision. "I meant what I said," said Love, who can be a free agent in 2015. "I'm done talking about it really from here on out after today. I'm hoping we can just move on and winning will take care of everything."

? Stephen Jackson fined for threatening Serge Ibaka. The 34-year-old Spurs forward, who has been sidelined since Nov. 20 by a broken right pinkie, was so infuriated watching Ibaka play on TV that he earned $25,000 for a threatening tweet. ''Somebody tell serg Abaka. He aint bout dis life. Next time he run up on me im goin in his mouth. That's a promise. He doin 2 much,'' tweeted Jackson after watching Ibaka and Metta World Peace skirmish during the Thunder's win over the Lakers last Friday.

? Amir Johnson suspended for one game. NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson suspended Johnson, the normally even-tempered Raptors big man, for throwing his mouthpiece at referee David Jones on Monday in Portland. Johnson was tossed from the game for inexplicably trying to strip the ball from the referee after a free throw.

? Raptors in trade rumors. An 4-16 start (three more losses have followed) forced Toronto president Bryan Colangelo to insist that coach Dwane Casey's job was safe and that no trades were imminent, despite rumors that injured big man Andrea Bargnani and point guard Jose Calderon (in the final year of his contract) would be available. The Raptors had been cited, along with the Timberwolves, as a potential landing spot for Pau Gasol if the Lakers make the shortsighted mistake of deciding to move him based on recent results. But the recently torn ligaments in Bargnani's right elbow have scuttled those rumors.

? More unwanted publicity for DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings' volatile center was suspended for one game after appearing to aim a punch at the groin of Mavericks leading scorer O.J. Mayo during Sacramento's 119-96 loss at Dallas on Monday. Double technicals were issued as the players continued to argue on the court, and Mayo asked the referees to review the run-in at halftime. Cousins said he wasn't aiming for the groin. (He also had a run-in with opposing coach Rick Carlisle.) "I told him, 'Man, play basketball,' " Mayo said. "'You've got a chance to be a good player, but when you do stuff like that, you're like a garbage player. It's not a sign of being great.' " Mayo added that Cousins has "mental issues.''

? Robert Sarver backs coach Alvin Gentry. The Phoenix owner in recent interviews has refused to blame Gentry for the Suns' 8-15 start, which has had everything to do with the absences of Steve Nash (now a Laker) and Channing Frye (sidelined indefinitely with a large heart). "We're not looking to make a change,'' Sarver said. In spite of the best intentions, such statements from ownership tend to imply that change is coming sooner than later.

? Arena issues. Indianapolis extended its contract with the Pacers through 2013-14 while giving the franchise $10 million to continue operating Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The deal amounts to an extension of an existing three-year deal, which is meant to keep the Pacers in Indianapolis. If they're still in the arena in 2019, their $40 million in loans to the city will be forgiven.

In the meantime, Virginia Beach, Va., continued to lure the Kings as the city council voted 9-2 to keep negotiating with Comcast-Spectacor on construction of a proposed 18,500-seat arena. It remains unfathomable that the Maloof family would choose to move from its West Coast base to a small market in the East, and it is even harder to imagine that the NBA would enable Sacramento's owners to do so while a superior market like Seattle lays vacant.

? Tony Parker outduels Jeremy Lin. Lin revived memories of his phenomenal outburst last year as a Knick by scoring 38 points Monday for the Rockets, who lost 134-126 in overtime to the visiting Spurs. "I was like: 'Man if we lose, nobody is going to care,' " Parker said of his first triple-double (27 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds). "Now that we won the game it makes it even better, because at the end of the day people only care about wins.'' James Harden was sidelined by a sprained ankle for the Rockets, currently 10-11.

Get To Know: Bernard James

The 6-foot-10 rookie center is averaging 3.5 points and 3.4 rebounds with the Mavericks. James, 27, was picked in the second round (No. 33 overall) after spending 2003-08 in the Air Force, rising to staff sergeant with tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar.

? He was a lost soul as a teenager. "I was a know it all, I just thought I had everything figured out. People would tell me I was doing something wrong and I wouldn't listen, or I thought I would be better off if I did something this way.''

Though he was 6-5 at age 17, James didn't play basketball for his high school in Savannah, Ga., because he was intimidated by his five older brothers.

"I grew up in a basketball family. I was always kind of shooting and messing around on the court. I knew how to play, but I had never competed. It was because I didn't want to live in my older brothers' shadow. They were the best basketball players at whatever school they were at, and I didn't want to live up to what they had done. I wanted to take my own path.

"In 10th grade I dropped out. I was miserable at my high school. I didn't feel like I had a connection with any of my teachers or my peers, so I just stopped going after a while. I did a good job of hiding it and my parents didn't figure it out until it was too late, to where I was going to be held back because I had missed so many days. By the time they found out, I had a well mapped-out plan and I'd already started working toward getting my GED and setting everything up so that I could go into the military. It was hard for them to go against it, especially with my dad being in the Army -- he knew that I'd gain some discipline and some culture and a little bit of life perspective.''

James was 22 when he grew five inches. He had been transferred to Beale Air Force base in Sacramento where his supervisor was coach of the intramural basketball team. He encouraged James to play. "That's how I got started. It was just by chance. If I had ended up in a different unit, I may not have ended up playing and I may not be here right now."

? He had no idea that the Air Force was preparing him for the NBA. "It helped me become a man. It made me realize that I don't know it all. That was huge for my development, and just learning in general. When you think you know everything, you don't learn, because you think you already know it. Once you humble yourself, you realize that there's a whole world of stuff out there that you don't know. You constantly start soaking things up, and that's what I've been doing ever since I joined the military. It's been huge in my development as a person, as a basketball player and every aspect of my life.''

Among his assignments was to guard detainees in Southern Iraq, where a 40-millimeter round landed within 90 feet of him, killing six detainees. "There's definitely situations you get afraid in. In the military, your training teaches you to manage that fear so that you're not paralyzed by it. You can still perform and do your job. A lot of time fear is a good thing -- it keeps you sharp. When you're scared of something, you don't relax. Fear keeps a lot of people alive over there by keeping them on their toes and keeping their reflexes sharp.''

He views learning to deal with fear as a valuable life skill. "You can fight through any situation you're in. So it definitely helps outside of the military.''

? He played two years at a junior college, then spent two years at Florida State.

"Being 6-foot-10 helped. A lot. It made things a lot easier than when I was 6-4 or 6-5. Yeah, I definitely was surprised at how quickly I started picking things up.

"I had doubts going in. I hadn't been playing organized basketball that long before getting to that level of those guys you see on TV all the time. The NCAA and NBA are the main two leagues for basketball that you watch as an American, and to be in the ACC -- which is the conference I grew up watching -- was humbling. I did doubt whether I belonged there when I first got there.''

Rookies are expected to defer, but James at 27 has more real-life experience than most of the NBA's famed "veterans.'' "A lot of these guys that are younger than me have more experience on the court, so I learn from them in that aspect. But outside the court, I think the roles may be reversed a little bit.''

He finds his maturity to be an advantage in the NBA. "A lot of people come in and make mistakes, particularly with their money, because they never had anything -- they never had their own job, career or money -- and a lot of guys end up getting in trouble from overreaching. It's big to be more mature and to know my limits, and then to have a businesslike approach to basketball.

"Goals for my career? My first goal is to lead this team in rebounding and blocked shots -- probably not this year, I don't think I'll get the minutes. But that's a goal of mine over the next couple of years. Once I achieve that, then I'll start working in other areas, like scoring. Then hopefully I can make an All-Star Game at some point, that would be cool. I think I can play well into my 30s -- 36 or 37 easily.''

None of his brothers grew taller than 6-8 or played beyond small college ball. The "know-it-all'' who avoided basketball in high school is now playing in the NBA.

"Yeah, that's the funny part. All of them played basketball pretty much their whole life, and none of them were able to make it. I think a lot of guys are like that: When they start young like that, they get complacent, or they kind of take it for granted. And it's over one day and they wish they could have had it back and they would have worked harder. I think that's what happened to my brothers.''

Quote Of The Week

"This is the most challenging stretch that I've been in [in] my 17 years. Most baffling too." -- Kobe Bryant on the Lakers' struggles.

Bryant said this after the Lakers fell to 2-7 on the road and 9-13 overall with their 100-94 loss Tuesday at Cleveland. The Cavaliers, who were 4-17 coming in, were enabled to celebrate their first win of December because the Lakers committed 19 turnovers and missed 15-of-40 free throws.

The Lakers have made a bad habit of losing at Cleveland -- two seasons ago the Cavaliers were 9-46 when they embarrassed Los Angeles.

A troubling trend has been the Lakers' failure to get back on defense. "Last year we got beat in the playoffs by transition points,'' Bryant told reporters Tuesday, "and this year it's still an Achilles' heel for us.'' At the same time, this Lakers malaise is breaking new ground. This team hasn't show any sign of fighting back from a bad night. "I don't know if we're too slow of a team and we got to change things up a little bit and play a slower game,'' said Bryant. "I don't know the answer.''

Bryant said he might reach out to former Lakers for advice, though he already knows what Magic Johnson would say. "His system doesn't fit the talent that the Lakers have,'' Johnson said of coach Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense. "You can't run with this team. Where are the runners? You got one dude who can get up and down the court and that's Kobe. Ron [Metta World Peace], love him, but he's slow. Both of our big men, not fast guys. [D'Antoni] has got to say, 'Maybe I should scale it back.'''

No one wants to hear about the absences of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, or that there's time to turn things around when the team is healthy -- after all, the Mavericks looked hopeless while losing 10 of 13 games just five months before they celebrated their 2011 victory in the NBA Finals. On their way to New York to play the contending Knicks in the second game of a four-game trip out east, the Lakers were reported to be looking at available point guards to fill in for Nash and Steve Blake. They may not yet have hit bottom.

Game Of The Week

Golden State Warriors (No. 5 in the West) at Atlanta Hawks (No. 3 in the East), Saturday, 7 p.m. ET. An NBA scout breaks down two of the league's most surprising teams.

"I'm definitely surprised by the Warriors," the scout said. "Everybody has improved for them over the course of the year, and from a coaching standpoint they've got a better feel for what they have. They understand how to put the guys into situations to be successful. Festus Ezeli has been a surprise to everyone. He's physical and athletic. He's not a great offensive player, but he can finish around the rim, and he gives them a defensive presence to help resolve one of the issues they've had in previous years. I'm surprised by their defense and their mental toughness, which has been shown on the road already by the games they've won in the East.

"Klay Thompson has gotten a lot better. Last year he was strictly a shooter, but this year he's putting the ball on the floor more and taking better shots. Stephen Curry, being healthy, has been a vital part of the team because he can pass. Down the stretch you can see he's a great free-throw shooter and that he seems to have a strong level of endurance. At the end of the game he's not making mistakes; even if he's tired he's able to get his shot off. Last month in Dallas he had a great fourth quarter and overtime, but the play that won the game was a pass he made. And then David Lee has improved his jump shot to where he seems very confident in it and is allowed to shoot it. He's playing more like the Knicks' version of Lee than last year's Lee.

"Atlanta lost Joe Johnson in the trade to the Nets, but I think it helped their team overall. Guys used to stand around and watch when he had the ball because they relied on him a lot. Now they've replaced him with pieces that are able to do the things that he did. Joe is a very good shooter, but Kyle Korver is a great shooter. Plus, they've added guys who can score off the dribble, which makes them more of a five-man unit than they were before.

"Jeff Teague has been more consistent this year. Their main guy is Josh Smith, who still has those two to three plays per game that make you shake your head -- a quick three-point shot or a play on the break when he's trying to dribble out and he takes a crazy shot or makes a crazy pass. But I think he's matured in his shot selection to where those wacky plays have come down from the five to six per game he used to make.

"Smith has an expiring contract, and he's that piece they could deal for a couple more players. But he's also a unique talent in the league. I think the bigger question for them is whether they think Al Horford can be consistent as an undersized 5 man, as opposed to his natural position as a big 4 who doesn't shoot it or stretch the floor. In some ways the future of their team depends more on Al, because Josh is a 4 no matter what. He's a 4 who changes the game. Plus, they have a new management team in Atlanta around GM Danny Ferry, and what they've been seeing this year is a better Josh than the Josh we've seen in previous years.

"In terms of the matchups, these two teams are pretty even. The main thing I'd look at is the schedule. This is going to be the last game of a tough seven-game road trip for the Warriors. It will be their third game in four nights, and it will be coming three nights after they've played at Miami. For those young guys, that's going to be The Game of the trip -- they're not thinking about the Atlanta game. What they've been thinking about is playing the world champs and LeBron and D-Wade. Plus, their one night out in Atlanta will be the night before the game, which is always a dangerous consideration for the visiting team. Those things make this look like a solid win for the Hawks."

All-Grizzlies Team

The Grizzlies ranked first in steals and forced turnovers the previous two seasons. They've been a top team this season in part because they rank No. 2 in steals while leading all teams in points off turnovers.

Each of these players below ranks among the league leaders at his position in steals per 48 minutes while contributing to a winning team. Take note of the abundance of Grizzlies and Clippers:


C Joakim Noah, BullsF Josh Smith, HawksF Thaddeus Young, 76ersG Tony Allen, GrizzliesG Chris Paul, Clippers


C Kevin Garnett, CelticsF LeBron James, HeatF Matt Barnes, ClippersF Rudy Gay, GrizzliesG Eric Bledsoe, ClippersG Mike Conley, GrizzliesG Jason Kidd, Knicks